Movie Reviews
1:55 pm
Fri August 1, 2014

No Forgiveness, But A Kind Of Cinematic Grace In 'Calvary'

Originally published on Mon August 4, 2014 3:07 pm

Ireland's barrel-chested force of nature Brendan Gleeson plays a priest who has a date with murder in Calvary, John Michael McDonagh's comic but darkly existential detective story.

The film continues a winning streak for the actor/director team after their terrific comic thriller (and all-time Irish indie box office champ) The Guard, in which Gleeson played a surly, often three-sheets-to-the-wind but undeniably effective cop. Calvary, which is apparently the second installment in a planned trilogy (the concluding chapter will be called The Lame Shall Enter First), finds him in a role that could hardly be more different and deepens and darkens the mood considerably, beginning with an opening scene that has Gleeson's Father James' eyes widening slightly as he hears confession from a man who begins, "I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old."

"That's a startling opening line," observes the tough-minded priest. But the unseen parishioner is not out to startle; he wants to cause pain to match what he's been bottling up for decades. Raped repeatedly as a child by a priest who has since died, he is now hellbent on an irrational act of retribution.

"I'm going to kill you, Father," he says calmly. "There's no point in killing a bad priest. I'm going to kill you because you're innocent."

Sunday-a-week ought to give him time to put his house in order, he says, and leaves the confessional.

Father James, a widower and recovering alcoholic who came late to the priesthood, and has found it suits him, appears as unprepared for this turn of events as we are. But there's a hierarchy to guide him (albeit, one that turns out not to be much help), and pastoral duties to occupy his time.

Now, while the priest knows who's threatening him, we don't. And as he makes the rounds of his parish, talking with the police inspector (but not about the threat because the inspector's male prostitute is there), or arguing religion with a squire whose wealth brings him only bitterness, you start to realize pretty much any of his parishioners could be the one. Well, maybe not the jailed rapist cannibal (played in a nice bit of perverse casting by Gleeson's son Domnall), but certainly the arsonists, adulterers, and coke-snorting doctors in his flock. Their callousness leaves Father James regularly astonished. Us, too, and all the while, the clock keeps ticking toward Sunday-a-week.

Calvary is bleak and corrosively funny in about equal measure, with the rugged gray/green landscape suiting the harshness of the village's attitudes about the church, and repentance, and the worth of good works. It is also so clearheaded about the human cost of the church's abuse scandals that it qualifies as something of a leap of faith in its own right. A leap past the forgiveness preached in last year's Oscar nominee, Philomena, to a more rigorous accounting and a kind of cinematic grace. (Recommended)

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the new film "Calvary" Irish actor Brendan Gleeson plays a priest - a priest who has a date with murder. The darkly comic drama was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival. And our critic Bob Mondello says, "Calvary" amounts to an existential detective story.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Father James is a tough-minded thoughtful guy - a widower and recovering alcoholic who came late to the priesthood and has found it suits him. He's popular with his parishioners and in tune with the coastal Irish village they live in. So he's just as unprepared as we are for what he hears in the confessional as the film opens.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CALVARY")

BRENDAN GLEESON: (As Father James) I'm here to listen to whatever you have to say.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm going to kill you father.

GLEESON: (As Father James) That's certainly a startling opening line.

MONDELLO: But the parishioner is not out to startle. He's aggrieved in a way that has him wanting to cause real pain - pain to match the pain he's been bottling up for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CALVARY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I was raped by a priest when I was 7-years-old.

GLEESON: (As Father James) Did you make a formal complaint?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What good would it do? The man's dead.

GLEESON: (As Father James) There's no point in killing a bad priest.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But killing a good one that'd be a shock.

MONDELLO: So he gives Father James a date, Sunday a week, tells him to put his house in order and leaves the confessional. Father James goes to a superior who is concerned if not concerned enough to stop eating as they talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CALVARY")

DAVID WILMOT: (As Father Leary) So do you know who it was?

GLEESON: (As Father James) Yes, I know who it was.

WILMOT: (As Father Leary) Do you know him well?

GLEESON: (As Father James) Well enough.

WILMOT: (As Father Leary) Knowing this man as you do, do you think it was an idle threat?

GLEESON: (As Father James) I don't know. I'm not sure.

WILMOT: (As Father Leary) You didn't grant him absolution, obviously.

GLEESON: (As Father James) He didn't ask for it.

WILMOT: (As Father Leary) Well, there you have it. The man is not parented. There's no contrition. He's threatening to commit a crime and not asking for forgiveness for one. The in-viability of the sacramental seal does not apply.

GLEESON: (As Father James) You're saying I should go to the police?

WILMOT: (As Father Leary) I'm not saying anything, James. The choice is yours.

MONDELLO: Which leaves him back where he started. Now, while Brendan Gleeson's barrel-chested Father James knows who's threatening him, we don't and as he makes the rounds of his parish, talking with the police inspector but not about the threats because the inspectors male prostitute is there or arguing religion with a squire whose wealth brings him only bitterness, you start to realize pretty much any of his parishioners could be the one - well, maybe not the jailed rapist cannibal played in a nice bit of perverse casting by Gleeson's real son Domhnall. But certainly the arsonists, adulterers and coke snorting doctors in the flock - their callousness leaves him regularly astonished never more so than when he confronts a butcher he suspects of beating his wayward wife.

GLEESON: (As Father James) Are you leaning into her? What's going on?

O'DOWD: (As Jack Brennan) No, no. That's that black fellow that she's been seeing - I mean, the colored fellow she's been seeing. Sorry I didn't mean to be racist there at all. It's a slip of the tongue. I think she's bipolar. Or lactose intolerant one of the two. And if I'm honest with you I'm kind of glad to have her off my hands.

GLEESON: (As Father James) Not even if this new fellows knocking her about?

O'DOWD: (As Jack Brennan) She wants nothing to do with me.

GLEESON: (As Father James) What?

O'DOWD: (As Jack Brennan) Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.

MONDELLO: All the while, the clock keeps ticking towards Sunday, a week. Filmmaker John Michael McDonagh also worked with Gleeson on "The Guard," an entertaining action comedy that barely hinted at the depth of feeling they find in "Calvary." If this film is bleak and corrosively funny in about equal measure it's also so clearheaded about the human cost of the church's abuse scandals that it qualifies as something of a leap of faith past the forgiveness preached in say "Philomena" to a more rigorous accounting - one that has a kind of cinematic grace. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.